Macron at 40 Enters the Prime of Life and Core of His Presidency

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(Bloomberg) -- For Emmanuel Macron, turning 40 may be the least of his worries.

In the run-up to his birthday next week, France’s president has maintained a breathless pace and packed agenda, earning more than a soupcon of credibility among the public and world leaders. Yet with most of his plans a long way from fruition, the risk is that voters will turn away unless he can show concrete results from his eloquence and travel.

In the past five weeks, Macron has visited Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Algeria and three countries in West Africa, helped reverse what looked like the forced resignation of Lebanon’s prime minister and took time out in Ouagadougou to banter with students on France’s colonial history. All the while he had a phone line open to Berlin, keeping tabs on Angela Merkel’s efforts to form a government. This week he hosted summits on climate change and Africa’s Sahel region before traveling to Brussels for talks with his European Union counterparts.

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The punishing schedule kept by France’s youngest leader since Napoleon can’t hide the fact that 2018 will be, if not quite his Waterloo, then the year reality hits. With European and municipal elections looming later, Macron needs results to keep his presidency on track.

“Macron has had super-star beginnings,” said Bruno Cautres, a professor at SciencesPo in Paris. “But he’s now getting into the nitty-gritty, into the day-to-day stuff. The hardest part is just beginning.”

Economic Tailwind

For now, voters seem impressed. Multiple polls show his popularity rebounding from a dip after summer, with the latest Ifop survey showing his approval rating crossing the 50 percent mark for the first time since July.

Macron inherited a tailwind that has propelled French growth to its fastest pace in five years and swept measures of business confidence to levels not seen in a decade. But the jobless rate remains stuck at levels roughly double that of the U.K. and Germany; it rose in the third quarter, to 9.7 percent.

“French people ultimately want to see lasting results and real change,” said Cautres. “Unemployment is and remains the key.”

There are plenty more hurdles ahead. Macron is embarking on an overhaul of the welfare system that will widen access to jobless benefits while toughening up controls and potentially cutting payments. He’s also working on a potentially explosive pension reform. The government is struggling to combat France’s poverty levels, especially among youths -- the health minister unveiled “a preliminary consultation to get a plan” earlier this month.

Wait and See

At the European level, Germany’s never-ending coalition talks are forcing him to slow down, leaving his plans for the euro-area hanging and casting doubt on his ambitions to have a slew of his lawmakers voted in at the 2019 European Parliament elections.

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The largest survey in France shows most voters in “wait-and-see” mode. Conducted by the Cevipof, which has polled a panel of nearly 13,000 voters since 2015, and published in Le Monde newspaper, it paints a picture of a populace more confident in their future and content -- for now -- to wait for signs of the effectiveness of his policies to feed through.

It’s not as if Macron has been a slouch on the domestic front. He pushed through a landmark labor-market reform in September, within four months of taking office, squeezed the budget deficit, slashed taxes for business and trimmed them for some households. Those actions will take a while to pay off.

‘On the Map’

Foreign investors and executives also expect real change to take time, according to Business France, a state agency that seeks to drum up investment from abroad.

“The perception of France has changed and that may have been the hardest part,” Caroline Leboucher, the agency’s chief operating officer, said in an interview. “France is now on the map” for investors, even as they look for results, she said.

Macron is equally keen to pursue the matters of state to which French presidents typically attend. Last week he led tributes to national heroes -- a writer and a rock star -- as his government prepared to ban smartphones from schools.

If he allows himself a 40th birthday celebration on Thursday, it will be brief. The following day he flies to Niger, the landlocked African country that supplies most of the uranium for France’s nuclear reactors.

©2017 Bloomberg L.P.

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